|HER WORLD||Sunday, September 23, 2001, Chandigarh, India|
A mother has no legal right over her children
Why big men remain little boys!
A mother has no legal right over her children
LAST year, the Supreme Court of India gave a landmark judgement to please women. In its ruling, it named the mother to be ‘also’ the ‘natural guardian’ of a minor child. Having fought for a ray of hope in redefining the status of an Indian mother vis-a-vis her minor children for decades, women’s activist groups and social workers jumped with joy at this small but significant step taken by the highest court of the land. This would help mothers assert themselves in designing the security and destiny of minor children, it was felt. Is a sporadic judgement like this one really enough for women to sit back and sigh with relief? Have women truly won the battle for equal parental rights and will children now be as much the wards of their mothers as their fathers? There are many questions to be raised here.
First, we must accept that as we look into the new millennium, Indian society is showing an alarming growth rate of divorces. Middle and upper middle class families think nothing today of having a divorce or two in the family. Almost every family you care to interview, has a divorced son or daughter. Though not welcomed or fully accepted as normal, a divorce is more readily seen today as a solution to an unhappy or traumatic marriage. This means that there are more and more young children who have to grow up with a single parent. If the children are young, it is usually the mother who keeps them and with nominal or no help from her ex-husband, she brings them till they are independent and capable of taking their own decision. The maintenance laws in India are so archaic and confusing, that most divorce-seeking women either take a lumpsum or the usual allowance given by laws made in the 70s and avoid long legal battles or ugly court scenes.
In other cases, where there is no divorce and an abandoned mother is a career-person working to earn, she often provides for a child’s education and personality development or financial security. Yet, if the marriage runs into rough weather, she holds no legal position in the child’s life without an extended battle for custody. Not only are the laws archaic, but social traditions also look upon the father as the legal guardian. The courts take so long to long to bring a case to a conclusion, that the woman is eventually beaten by a system which expects her to earn, settle into her newly divorced status and fight for her children’s right to have a mother’s care.
Thirdly, Indian society has a long way to go before giving legal and social acceptance to a child born to an unmarried woman or to an illegitimate child born out of wedlock. In western societies today — particularly Britain — a pregnant mother approaches a national health hospital for safe medical help and care when she conceives a child, within or without a marriage. The state functions on the principle of welfare, and the health authorities do not even ask who is the father or ‘partner’ of the woman. All blood tests, procedures and registration formalities are based on the fact that the child is born in a particular place to a particular mother. Domicile, and even nationality, is given to a child based on the antecedents of the mother. The system does not require a father’s medical details or support to manage the birth of a child. Thus, though there are fatherless children in that society, there are no illegitimate children, the mother being the sole guardian in addition to the state, which at all times, is the final authority in raising the child in case both parents abandon it. This is, perhaps rightly, not so in India yet.
These various circumstances have not changed because of the recent Supreme Court judgement. To my mind, with all its ifs and buts, the judgement applies to cases of guardianship in a limited manner. The judgement itself uses the word ‘also’ which indicates that the primary guardianship of the property and person of a minor child remains firmly with the father. The judgement, though a step in a new direction, does not change the spirit of laws set out in the Hindu Code Bill or the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956. Indeed, the courts presume that these laws were made by the Indian Parliament with due cognisance of the constitutional rights of women. In other words, in a wholly patriarchal society, whose laws are based on a man’s status as the karta and owner of the family property and the legal and customary head of the family, men still have priority in social and family laws as compared to women. A mother, thus, can be a legal guardian of her own children only by special legal sanction because of circumstances or agreement from the husband or because of his absence by death, abandonment or other reasons. Her right to her minor children is not really automatic or easy to obtain. To understand why even a landmark judgement such as the present one, provides only limited relief, it is necessary to examine the background against which such legal cases are fought and judgements pronounced.
In many of India’s urban areas, registration of the three major events in one’s life is legally necessary: birth, marriage and death. Official forms have to be obtained and duly completed for all three occasions. Certificates of birth, marriage and death are then issued by the concerned authority either as a separate document (as in the case of birth and death), or in the case of marriages, on the application form itself which is duly stamped with the date of the entry of registration of the marriage to legalise it as a certificate of the marriage. These certificates are then used for passports, divorces and other lawsuits, inheritances, property divisions, citizenship matters, domicile status determination and other important life-issues.
Yet, except on the birth certificate of an individual, the mother’s name hardly ever appears as a rule while the father’s name is a constant requirement on every governmental as well as private institutional form. If this is the case of these three important examples, the cases of other official documents such as school or college admission applications, university records, property registration etc are legion where the mother’s name is omitted by customs which have come down to us through millenniums.
In a typical Indian home, patriarchal absolutism is the power centre and therefore it marginalises women. The concept of motherhood is set up as a corollary on a pedestal of sacrifice and self-negation to the point that the archetypal mother, shown in films, novels, mythology and religious laws, is always a rather humble woman who has no existence except through her husband or children. Yet, these very same children for whom she is an epitome of caring and love, and who are by tradition a mother’s primary responsibility in all Indian families, do not have the right or legal need to name her as their equal guardian with their father. The single mother, having no legal existence in India, has a worse fate.
This being the scenario even in the 2000s, women activists and institutions which fight their cause have always agonised at the way a mother is marginalised in all official documents, despite the fact that the equality of both sexes is guaranteed by our Constitution as well as law. Until recently, a mother could not even sign as guardian on a child’s school or college admission forms. On all certificates or receipts issued by schools or universities, only the father was recognised as the guardian. Some years ago, under pressure from various women’s organisations such as the Joint Women’s Programme and the National Federation of Indian Women, the Union Human Resource Development Ministry ordered the Central Board of Secondary Education to see that all forms and certificates would include a mother’s identity so that she is accepted as an equal guardian or a single parent.
Further, this order was required to be implemented in universities and institutes of technical education. Many heads of women’s organisations then applauded this step, saying that it was a good beginning for a change in a mother’s status. It recognised the fact that our male-dominated social laws vis-a-vis a mother and her child need to be changed suitably to acknowledge the inputs of a mother makes into a child’s young years, considering it is she who always spends more time and energy with the child during his/her growing years and often takes on the burden of two roles — that of a parent and a breadwinner — to set up a child in later life.
Our patriarchal laws and the old practices are perhaps born out of the British acceptance of outdated Hindu laws which decree that paternity is more important than maternity and that every child must be identified as the heir to his/her father’s heritage. This thought has permeated Indian life so relentlessly over the past millenniums, that a father’s endorsement on every document has been found necessary in schools, colleges, banks, employment matters, domicile and travel documents, licences and all other official identity papers needed by an individual. Not so long ago, notwithstanding the fact that a woman was financially independent and even separated from her husband, a bank, or an institution like the Life Insurance Corporation of India would require a husband’s signature on application for a loan, perhaps for a house. A bank insisted on a father’s signature on the form when a mother wanted to start an account in the name of a minor child. If a woman applied for a passport or allotment of a house or any property, even if she was totally independent and able to produce the collateral, she had to mention her husband’s or father’s name as her identity in the application form.
Over a period of decades, this situation has changed, but very slowly. Women today are recognised as individuals in the matter of their employment and finances. But as mothers, they are still struggling for rights as equal parents. A child still has to use his/her father’s name in every identity paper as an official requirement. Yes, there have been sporadic movements to change this practice but they have not succeeded to any noticeable extent. Our society remains staunchly patriarchal and a man can be identified only by his father’s name whereas a woman is identified by her father’s name first and her husband’s name after marriage.
In the coming years, women’s
organisations, using the present judgement as a stepping stone, will
hopefully cause debates to held on laws regarding division of
matrimonial property, child custody after divorce or separation, a woman’s
right to her parent’s property and other legislation which will truly
actualise a woman’s equality in Indian life. Till such time however,
whatever women achieve, they will be known as ‘daughter of’ or ‘wife
of’, at least in government documents!
Why big men remain little boys!
WHAT is so abnormal about being a mama’s boy? Aren’t all boys, not to speak of girls — mama’s kids? The human child requires nourishment and nurturing longer than other animal species. And unlike animal mothers, which push their offspring away towards independence pretty early, human parents, mothers in particular, look after every need of their children till they are well into adolescence. They also try to hold on just a little longer emotionally to their children, especially boys.
Mothers dote on them when they are babies, walk holding their hands when they turn into toddlers, try to live their every experience in their pre-teen and teen years and still are reluctant to let them go after they become adults and even marry.
It all starts innocuously enough. Mothers nearly preen as they speak about their boys. ‘Rishi doesn’t eat unless I serve him the food, says Shanti of her 15-year- old, who is sullenly flicking channels, waiting for his mother to stop talking to me and give him his tea — which she lovingly takes to him eventually. Vanita brags, ‘My boy never does anything without asking me first. If I say no, he won’t do it.’
As they enter their adolescence and teens, the boys begin taking tentative steps towards independence, and yet the mothers want to cling on. Many boys enjoy the adulation of their mothers and thrive on their attention. When asked if he helped his mother, who keeps indifferent health, with chores at home, one young man confessed that his mother did everything for him, including laying out his clothes and fetching him a glass of water. The lady in question doesn’t enjoy robust health.
Seeing my shocked expression, he said casually, "It makes her happy to look after me. Why should I spoil her happiness?" Oh God!
Such power over your children can be heady and mothers expect it to continue regardless of the age of their children. Visual ads, TV serials and movies only reinforce the image of the mother as the ultimate being, who is not only above
reproach, but also whose word is law, at least for her sons, who’d go to any lengths to fulfill her every wish.
Nothing wrong in this, as long as it is a healthy bond, where there is a bit of space to allow for resilience. It is only when the bond becomes a binding tie, it begins to choke the boys.
For, soon enough the Sunnys and Buntys have grown into adults and have brought home their Sweetys and Pinkys. That’s when the problem begins.
The reason for this behaviour of Indian mothers is cultural, says Sudhir Kakar in his book Inner World. According to him, "....an Indian woman knows that motherhood confers upon her a purpose and identity that nothing else in her culture can. Each infant borne and nurtured by her safely into childhood, especially if the child is a son,is both a certification and redemption.’ But why should a mother’s closeness to her son be looked upon contemptuously, while her attachment to her daughter is considered normal, even when the girl has grown into a woman? The answer for this lies in the Pinkys and Sweetys that come into the household to share the man’s affections with his mother. For, such clinging love of the mother to her son can play havoc with the relationship between the man and his wife.
Why should this be so, while a woman’s love for her married daughter is acceptable? The reason for this is that, the mother-daughter bond strives to strengthen the ties between the daughter and her new family, except maybe in extreme cases. You see, it is all about female bonding.
A man might not be able to bond with his adult son as well as a woman does with her grown-up daughter. Women instinctively provide a support network for each other and the daughter simply joins the network and gets support.
Apart from the cultural reason advanced by Dr. Kakar, for mothers holding on to their sons, there is the emotional one too. In India, middle age for women sets in much earlier than in the West, since girls marry and have babies at a younger age than their counterparts in the West.
Holding on to sons is thus a manifestation of the deep-rooted insecurity created by the empty-nest syndrome. The children who had been totally dependent upon her are now grown up and independent at least physically. The husband is most likely in the prime of his life, scaling the heights in his career. This consequently reduces the time they spend together too. So in a desperate attempt to hold on to the reins of her family, she starts clinging to her sons.
A notable observation here is that the women who share a good relationship with their husbands are less likely to hold on to their sons. Being emotionally fulfilled makes them less prone to insecurity. So too, women with flourishing careers or those engaged in gainful activities and community service, are apt to allow more breathing space to their grown-up children. They tend to look at their lives more positively and so are more tolerant of the younger woman in the family Living in a joint family makes it easier to dominate the sons, as often, she continues handling the running of the household and also holds the purse-strings. Consequently, everyone also continues following her methods and rules laid down by her.
Maya Mirchandani, in her book, The Indian Man, his true colours, says, ‘The process of transformation from boys to men requires an element of growth not just physically, but emotionally, which in India takes place much later than in the West, if it takes place at all.’
In days of yore, women in large joint families held a great deal of power and it was common for them to command unquestionable authority at least in matters pertaining to running of the house. But girls of today want to have a slice of power and when mama’s boys who are thoroughly intimidated by their mothers have little
patience for their complaining wives, it leads to bad relations between the two women. Hence the increasing trend of acrimonious, and even broken marriages. In a recent study on divorces, a significant finding was that interfering in-laws are the main cause for marriages breaking up in the city of Chandigarh. Higher levels of education and tolerance have seemingly left Oedipus complex largely untouched.
Worse, such constricting holding on impinges on the very privacy of a marriage. "I’d looked forward to having the first cup of tea with my husband, but my mother-in-law insists on serving him, barging into our room. The worst part is, my husband doesn’t mind it!" says an incredulous new bride.
Things don’t improve much even when the marriage is no longer new. Ask Rashmi, the mother of an eight-year-old girl, ‘Rohit doesn’t come to our room till my father-in-law comes home from work, which is normally pretty late. He says that his mother would feel lonely neglected if he didn’t sit up with her.’
Many a time, economic and emotional blackmail are used by the mothers to keep their sons in line. "We do so much for our children, but once they grow up, they tend to forget all our sacrifices and run behind their wives," snorts one woman. Constant reminders of the sacrifices that she has made to raise him, a mother can make the man feel obligated and guilty when he is unable to meet her expectations.
Even more than emotional blackmail, financial dependence makes men feel helpless. Unwilling to give up their claims on the family property, they compromise and toe the line. ‘It hardly costs anything to be an obedient and respectful son,’ says Amit, 37, much to the consternation of his scowling wife. He stoutly denies that money has a role to play in his scheme of things.
Arvind refuses to take up a job in another city, even though his present job is not satisfactory, as that would mean leaving his parents behind. This sounds better compared to Namita’s case. She was left behind to care for his parents when her husband took up a job in Bangalore. He comes once a month for a weekend. "Who will look after my parents?" he asks. Mind you, they are not old and his father is still working. When he is in town, needless to say, he spends a major portion of the time with his parents.
The misplaced sense of loyalty and love the boys have for their mother makes them ready to forgive them anything and this includes their indifference to their wives. "My mother can’t be wrong," is the stubborn assertion of many mamas’ darlings. There are extreme cases too. I know of the family where the wife had not been allowed to share a room with her husband for nearly six months at a time, on the pretext that the planetary configurations were not right.
Some men are known to remain unmarried in order to look after their widowed mothers. Of course, these are aberrations and not the rule, but the significant thing is that they occur even educated homes, even n the 21st century. Hard to believe? You only need to look around to find it is true.
My grand mother, who had been married in the early years of the 20th century, used to tell us how grandfather used to beat her at the instigation of his mother and then apologise for it when they were alone! Things are not bad today, but there don’t seem to much improvement, almost a century later.
Unless doting mamas become
confident enough to let their sons go, things would remain so for
another century or even longer. If only they would realise that by
letting go, they can hold on fast, they perhaps would.
"But father, why did you cry?" (September 9) was not a big surprise for me as I am living with a more unpleasant secret than Niki.
I was the second girl child in my family and, believe it or not, I was a nameless child for two months. After that, a neighbour of ours gave me a name with which I am presently surviving. The worst part is that even today I don’t know my actual birthday date as nobody in my family dares to remember that blackday. My dad says it was month of April but my mom say it was month of May and my matric marksheet says it was the month of August. I am confused can a woman ever forget the day on which she undergoes labour pains?
When a daughter is born, there comes a storm in the life of a father. The heart of the father, when he comes to know that an "unwanted burden" has entered his life, is heavy. Neither sweets are distributed nor any function organised to celebrate her birth.
The female child always enters the world facing apathy. Only the mother is cursed for giving birth to a female child. She is emotionally tortured with harsh comments that enables her to conclude about her daughter:"Yeh bojh utha kar chalun kab tak, Pachchta rahi hoo isey duniya mein lakar ab tak"
Even today, there are still many people who consider their daughters to be a source of tension and a burden. Daughters are inferiorly treated right from their childhood because one day they will go to her sasural and there would be no recovery of money spent on her. A father starts planning the marriage of his daughter the day she is born, whereas the little angel lying the cradle cries for the warmth of the hands of her father. Why is the little angel punished for the crime which she has not committed at all? What is her fault ? Why is she deprived of love that she deserves from her father?
Despite an unambiguous display of qualitative and quantitative superiority by girls in social, intellectual and moral spheres of life, a son still remains the most-cherished dream of parents in male-dominated Indian society. Undue attention and unhealthy love showered in plenty upon the male child not only turns him into a arrogant, authoritarian and unscrupulous young man, but also creates an atmosphere of jealousy, tension and avoidable imbalance in the family.
Girls are outshining boys in almost all professions and they are storming the male-bastions. They are proving to be an asset to society. On the other hand, over-protected and pampered male children not only lose their sense of direction but they also fail to undertake the serious responsibilities of life.
We need to overcome the societal pressure and prejudice against the girl child and develop a uniform and healthy outlook in bringing up our children, without any discrimination on the basis of sex. A strong tilt in favour of the male child will make him a self-centered and boisterous egoist and this will also develop in the girl child, a sense of alienation and of being an unwanted burden..
Let us rise above the orthodox syndrome of gender discrimination and learn to love and appreciate our children for their talent and qualities ,and not for their sex.
The story may be called an ‘Episode from the life of every Indian woman.’ The father does not always cry. Nikki’s father cried and she felt bad . At least, he admitted his fault and felt he had wronged her when she was born. In the end he realised his mistake. I consider it a positive sign, not only for Nikki but for all other Nikkis of this country. Atleast one father has felt that way.
This refers to the article "Teen- trained Mom" by Thangamani. It was really quite a touching experience. The children who are not rational and respectful enough and who fail to command respect on the strength of their very own personalities are the most likely to behave thus. Teenagers with impressionable minds are influenced with everything gorgeous that has been completely missing in their lives. They are drawn towards people with wealth and feel upset for not being that rich. Some remain worried about their looks and outfits and hate themselves for having been born to ugly parents with no sense of dressing. Some do not live their names, particularly surnames, and do possess a desire to get away with it. Then they try to be as good as their friends and keep themselves away from everthing they are connected with be it their parents or home because they feel ashamed of them after having failed to defend their true status. They, more often than not, project an unreal image of their home and family and in order to keep that going as long as possible start keeping distance.
Some are completely unsympathetic and lack understanding of the fact that how much their parents might have been hurt in the process. Anyway it is just a stage in their process of development. As soon as a child receives setbacks, he finds his parents alone on his side while all his crimes are on the other side of fence having a hearty enough at his misforture. Only then does he realise true value of his parents.
B. M. PURI
This refers to the article "Formidable Fiorina by Roopinder Singh (September 9). Fiorina should serve as a perfect role model to those young women world over who are seeking careers as business executives and aim to rise high. In family-owned businesses, there are many examples of Indian women holding crucial positions like young Ekta Kapoor in Balaji Telefilms - a film-family-owned firm and Shobhana Bhartiya in HT (Hindustan times)....
Fiorina’s success story is an unique example of a woman with no business background/roots (father-a judge and mother an artist) rose from grassroot level (clerk, receptionist, teacher) to the top position — the first woman to become the CEO of one of America’s top 20 companies. Her success story inspires the attention of all. She is the most written about woman in the business world because she possesses the qualities that the modern corporate world looks for.